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A Brief History of Mapping

by Stacy Hardy.

In 1921, the independent Polish scholar Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski appropriated mathematician Eric Temple Bell’s epigram, “the map is not the thing mapped” to coin the phrase, “the map is not the territory”. In The Medium is the Message, Marshall McLuhan rehashed the argument – that all media are “extensions” of our human senses, bodies and minds.

Dror Burstein, the subversive Israeli novelist, tells this story: Because of an error on the part of the graphic artist, the map of the world was printed without Switzerland. The map was distributed to all the elementary schools in Senegal. It was only when the son of the Swiss ambassador to Senegal came home in tears that his father noticed the mistake and sent telegrams to Berne and Zurich. To his surprise, nobody in Berne answered him, and no reply was received from Zurich either.

Maybe, but the Bakongo people in Central Africa combined the map and the territory in their Kongo system of graphic writing, which literary encoded cartographic data directly onto the landscape they navigated.

Marshall “maps” made up of coconut fronds were the main tool the ancient Marshallese used to navigate the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The stick charts encoded information on both the territory as well as how to navigate it. The location of the islands was represented by shells and the threads were used to map ocean swells, wave-crests and direction.

The early voyages of Muslim explorers and merchants collected information that became the foundation of many maps. One of the most significant waves of Muslim explorers and merchants came from the Empire of Mali. They undertook several expeditions into the Atlantic Ocean in order to map its limits. Examination of inscriptions found in Brazil, Peru and the United States, as well as linguistic, cultural and archaeological finds offer documentary evidence of the presence of these Mandinka Muslims in the early Americas long before Christopher Columbus arrived from Europe.

San Salvador owes a debt to Cuba. When Columbus landed at Guanahani (which he renamed San Salvador) in the Bahamas in October 1492, he learned by signs from the inhabitants that there was a larger island to the south: Cuba. Later, when the Spanish reached the Aztec civilisation of Central America, they found a well-developed cartography of the area. Such maps were different from anything the Europeans had seen before, but most of these manuscripts perished after colonialism and their contribution was seldom acknowledged.

Sitting in the ruins of the once great library of Alexandria in Egypt, around CE 150, the Greek astronomer, Claudius Ptolemaeus, wrote a treatise entitled Geography: a topographical account of the latitude and longitude of more than 8,000 nations in Europe, Asia and Africa; an explanation of the role of astronomy in geography; a detailed mathematical guide for making maps of the earth and its regions; and the treatise that provided the western geographical tradition with an enduring definition of geography.

Academics in the US equated the discipline’s lack of systematic methodological with a lack of seriousness and rigour. In 1948, Harvard university officials shut down its geography department after being flummoxed by their “inability to extract a clear definition of the subject, to grasp the substance of geography, or to determine its boundaries with other disciplines.”

When the Abbasid Caliphate established itself as the centre of the Islamic Empire in Baghdad by the end of the 8th century, it provoked the beginning of a new recognisably Islamic practice of map making. Power shifted eastwards, bringing the caliphate into closer contact with the scientific and artistic traditions of Persia, India and even China, so complementing the initial assimilation by Islam of Christian, Greek and Hebraic cosmologies. All the surviving evidence suggests an evolving world picture heavily indebted to Greek scholarship, suffused by Indo-Persian traditions that produced a map based on climatic divisions oriented with south at the top.

Years later, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion projection offered a radically different spatial and socio-political structure to what had become the globally accepted view of Mercato’s projection of the earth’s surface. In the now universally standard Mercator map the northern hemisphere dominates, with Greenland more than twice the size of Australia, even though the southern island is in fact greater than three times the land area of the northern. Needless to say, this view has well suited the self-image of Europeans and North Americans in an era of western political hegemony.

In the same year as Fuller’s projection, the Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia drew the Inverted Map of South America with a very distinct “S” at the top of the drawing to remind us of condition spatial hierarchies and power relations.

Headless figures, clothed in African fabrics are congregated around a table. Making demonstrative gestures, they are poised over a map depicting Africa. Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Scramble for Africa’ (2003) alludes to the Berlin Congo Conference of 1884/1885, which saw Africa portioned out between the colonial powers. Of this work, Shonibare explains, “I wanted to represent these European leaders as mindless in their hunger for what the Belgian King Leopold II called ‘a slice of this magnificent African cake.’”

Although it might have delineated colonial spheres of influences, there were no actual maps produced from the Berlin Congo Conference. Most country maps were only produced later and often at the behest of global business and international mining companies.

Many thought Africa’s borders would change back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most African nations broke free from colonial rule. “An aversion to the international borders drawn by the colonial powers, if not their complete rejection, has been a consistent theme of anticolonial nationalism in Africa,” wrote the scholar Saadi Touval in 1967. “The borders are… regarded as arbitrarily imposed, artificial barriers separating people of the same stock, and they have said to have balkanised Africa. The borders are considered to be one of the humiliating legacies of colonialism, which, according to this view, independent Africa ought to abolish.”

Yet, by the time Touval published those words, alienation toward colonial borders had given way to their embrace. In 1964, the Organisation of African Unity decided that sticking with inherited borders promoted stability. Faced with a secession attempt by the oil-rich and Igbo-dominated region of Biafra, Nigeria stuck with the old map, brutally putting down the revolt three years later.

When the nations of Nigeria and Cameroon went to settle a border dispute in 2002, in which both countries claimed an oil-rich peninsula about the size of El Paso, they didn’t cite ancient cultural claims to the land or even their own national interests. Rather, in taking their case to the International Court of Justice, they cited a pile of century-old European paperwork. Cameroon’s yellowed colonial maps were apparently more persuasive; it won the case, and will officially absorb the Bakassi Peninsula into its borders next month.

“What is that?” asks The Father of The Nation in Sony Labour Tansi’s short story, ‘Seat of Power’. “It’s the map of the fatherland, Mr. President,” answers a trusted aid. The President in Tansi’s story replies, “How could you be so stupid? You have neglected our national interest… it’s like white rule all over again… What are you all, idiots?” With the red in ink in hand, Tansi’s Father of the Nation draws the new dimensions of the fatherland: “This, my brothers and dear countrymen, is the decree of my hernia, the fatherland will be square. We cannot live in a funnel drawn by the colonizers. What kind of people are we, anyway, if we can’t even make our own borders?” He twists his mouth. His cheeks follow the twist of the lips. His face contorts.

In February 2014, the World Bank announced an ambitious plan to initiate a $1 billion fund to finance an effort to map the mineral resources of the African continent. Their plan is to use advanced satellite and surveillance technology to, in the words of a World Bank senior manager, “identify the areas with more profitability”.

The hope for this endeavour is to unearth $1 trillion worth of new mineral resources that will be for the benefit of… Africans? An examination of African history over the past 150 years will quickly reveal that this is a story we’ve heard before.

In 2013, the Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon used historical sources to draw a counterfactual map of Africa. Cyon’s map asked, what if Europeans never colonised Africa? What would modern-day boundaries of African countries look like had the Scramble for Africa never occurred? The resulting map draws on historical sources to show the territories of the major ethnic groups that existed in Africa prior to European arrival. It is a map of what Africa would look like today if borders of ethnic groups remained fixed from about 1600.

But as Laura J. Mitchell points out on, Cyon’s Alt-Africa map may be arresting and provocative, but it can only go so far: “I can’t think or talk about Africa except through the veil of a specifically western epistemology… I can’t just set that aside without unraveling the rest of the stuff in my brain.”

“I ask what becomes of a person-indeed, what becomes of a people-when their ‘country-as-hypothesis’ ceases to work?” asks Nuruddin Farah, in Bastards of Empire. “I can remember when Somalia, the country of my birth became dead to me… one’s country doesn’t exist anymore, either as an idea or as a physical reality!”

In her book, From Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, which examines historical maps of Hong Kong to show how it displaced other islands as a seat of power, Kai-cheung Dung takes things further: “A place is never itself but is forever displaced by another,” writes Dung. “This is also to say that the map itself is a displacement, and cartography is such a process of displacement. Traditional cartography seemingly instructs us on how to search for places, but in fact its real lesson is that we can never arrive at our desired place on the map, and yet, at the same time, we inevitably arrive at its displace.”

Suggesting their cloud as a way to shelter government services from revolutions –services like the land registry, soon to be available as a smartphone application – Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, the authors of The New Digital Age inform us and them: “Governments may collapse and wars can destroy physical infrastructure but virtual institutions will survive.” With Google, what is concealed beneath the exterior of an innocent interface and a very effective search engine, is an explicitly political project. An enterprise that maps the planet Earth, sending its teams into every street of every one of its towns, cannot have purely commercial aims. One never maps a territory that one doesn’t contemplate appropriating.


Broadsheet cover


This story features in the new Chronic, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?

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